Executive Director of Strategic Communications
Yale School of the Environment faculty offer insights on leveraging data to inform environmental policy and practice at a panel discussion hosted by the Yale Club of New York City.
Trained as an oceanographer, Peter Raymond, YSE professor of ecosystem ecology and senior associate dean of research and director of doctoral studies, has long been researching how much water there is on the planet and how much CO2 and methane are emitted from all the water bodies across the world. As an undergraduate at Marist College, he focused on CO2 concentrations in the Hudson River, which sometimes involved sleeping by the river at night to collect samples, he told a crowd assembled at the Yale Club of New York City on April 25 for a panel discussion, “Environmental Data Science at Yale: Leveraging Data to Inform Important Environmental Policy and Practice.”
“I would do these things called diurnal studies, where I would try to see how much it varied in a single day,” Raymond said. “…I was literally sleeping by the river, collecting water and driving as fast as I could back to a gas chromatograph (an instrument that separates and identifies the components of a mixture for analysis) and pumping samples in to produce what today would be considered a fairly rudimentary graph, which I was obviously very proud of at the time.”
Raymond, who was joined on the panel by Jennifer Marlon, senior research scientist, lecturer, and director of data science at YSE and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC) and Eli Fenichel, Knobloch Family Professor of Natural Resource Economics, then showed the work of one of his recent PhD students that focused on the diurnal variability in CO2 in the Connecticut River over time.
“Kelly was able to put out an instrument where we can get a measurement every 15 minutes and actually watch the breathing of the river. She was doing this at eight sites across the river, receiving massive amounts of data that she had to somehow control, be able to learn when the instruments weren't working right, when they were drifting,” Raymond said. “So, with this new ability to put out probes and instruments to collect huge amounts of data that we can then use to compile advanced data statistics comes a new set of barriers, such as quality control and quality assurance. These also are some of the barriers and the problems that we're trying to use data science to help us with in the future.”
Marlon continued the discussion on data science and its role in informing environmental research and policy by discussing YPCCC research that has garnered significant attention, Global Warmings Six Americas. Since 2008, YPCCC has conducted biannual surveys of Americans’ opinions, beliefs, and attitudes on global warming, and determined that there are six different audiences within the U.S. public, with 26% of the public being alarmed about global warming, believe it’s real and caused by humans; 27% being concerned; 17% being cautious; 7% are disengaged; 11% are doubtful; and 11% are dismissive, believe it’s not happening, human-caused or a threat, and even believe it’s a hoax.
“Since 2015, the alarmed group in particular has grown more than any other group,” Marlon said. “So, there is movement, people are becoming more worried. They're moving up from the concerned group, they're moving up from the cautious, and the other groups are slightly shrinking. People are going in the right direction, but we need even more action, and we need it faster.”
Using data YPCCC researchers have been able to assess opinions on climate change for every county in the U.S., and Marlon noted that while there are variations among counties and regions in the country there are some commonalties.
“One of the good news stories is the map looks the same if you ask do you support renewable energy,” she said. “Across the aisle, in every county, in every state, people strongly support renewable energy.”
From Topeka to Oslo and Back Again
Eli Fenichel, Knobloch Family Professor of Natural Resource Economics, who recently returned to YSE from serving as the assistant director for natural resource economics and accounting in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told the group that the first step to connecting the environment, our natural resources, and our economy on a national level is collecting data and establishing a framework for collecting those data.
“We need all the data in place to combine the economics and the environment at the decision level,” said Fenichel, who led the 27-agency team at OSTP that authored the “National Strategy to Develop Statistics for Environmental-Economic Decisions.”
When individuals and groups have access to data about natural capital, it can lead to more informed decision making, Fenichel said, citing several examples at the state and local level. In Kansas, he and his fellow researchers used data taken from every well in the state, as well as crop irrigation and other sources, to look at groundwater losses over a 10-year-period, calculating that Kansas was losing more wealth in water than it had invested in its public schools.
“I got to go out there and meet with farmers and some policymakers,” Fenichel said. “They basically looked at (our work) and said, oh, we need to do better water conservation. I didn't tell them that. They just said look at the trade-offs we're making, we don't seem to be valuing our water as much as we'd like... Getting the information in front of people so that they can make calm, rational economic decisions about things we tend not to think of in the economic space is natural capital accounting in a nutshell.”
And it is increasingly a priority for countries around the world, Fenichel said.
“We've seen this in the UK, and just a few weeks ago the G7 put out a number of statements about launching a Nature Positive Economies Alliance to combine economic data and environmental data,” he said, noting an example of when he led a working group on accounting for ocean capital and ocean services for the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy.
In addition to a writing a paper, Fenichel and then doctoral student Ethan Addicott used data from Statistics Norway, the Directorate of Fisheries, and the Ministry of Transport to build an interactive dashboard in (Microsoft) Power BI of Norway’s ocean economy.
“Fast forward to 2022, and my Norwegian colleagues are creating an ocean economy account, and probably a similar dashboard, one that’s official and not built by a professor and student at Yale. And we have been contacted by probably half a dozen other countries asking us to do this for them.”
Marlon also noted how data-informed research in the right hands can have a big environmental impact. “We've presented (YPCCC research) to many corporations, organizations, and government agencies like NOAA, FEMA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and even the Irish Environmental Protection Agency, who commissioned their own maps of Ireland,” she said.
Fenichel, Marlon, and Raymond all agreed that accelerated technological advances also bring significant challenges, such as the need to wrangle and protect the credibility of mass quantities of data.
“We're still evolving and it's still a challenge of how we actually scale with these new technologies where it's not just silica, it's not just plastic, it's not just glass, it's also people,” Raymond said. “Things are changing so fast that you really do have to come back to the basics of really understanding what the data are, where do they come from, are they credible, are they trustworthy.”
Executive Director of Strategic Communications